Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dreams from My Father

I recently finished reading "Dreams from My Father" by Barack Obama. The book was originally published in 1995, before Obama was even a notorious senator from Illinois. However, after Obama was elected to the Senate, the book was republished, since people were probably newly enthused with his writings. I take a moment to point this out simply because I assume in the early 90's, Obama's dream of being president may not have been fully materializing. Therefore, one may assume this book is more "genuine," and less "political." At least, this is how I approached the book.

I must confess that I took to reading the book after I received another spam/forwarded email containing lies about Obama. Kind of similar to the recent illustrations published in the New Yorker magazine. I decided I would be a "fair" voter, and get to know the candidates a little better. I resolved to learn for myself a little more about who Obama really is. I have already begun reading John McCain's biography, because I think it only fair to do the same for the GOP candidate. I am tired of being manipulated by the media as to how to think or respond to artificially concocted "controversies." As a matter of fact, it has been several weeks now since I have turned on the TV, or the radio, to subject myself to anything politically-related. I have been in a much better mood, coincidentally.

I do not plan to give you an in-depth review of what I thought of the book, since I do not feel that is something I could accomplish without putting you to sleep. The main things I take away from this reading is having had the opportunity to learn about Barack Obama's background, his upbringing, and his early life as a community organizer in Chicago. The final section of the book addresses a journey Obama takes to Kenya, the country of his father's origin. This part was also fascinating, as he observes so many differences and distinctions between the life he has led in the west, compared to how many of his relatives live their lives in Kenya.

I have heard Barack Obama say his story would not be possible in any other country in the world but the United States. It is a disappointment to me, that none of his story is really ever told, and is probably not universally known or understood. My guess is it is safer to avoid specifics, since detractors will jump on any narrative with the typical, false claims - Obama is a Muslim, Obama attended a madrasah, etc. The truth is, his grandfather was Muslim. Obama demonstrates in the book his decision to join Trinity United Church in Chicago, a Christian denomination, after hearing a moving sermon by Reverend Jeremiah Wright entitled "The Audacity of Hope," also the title of Obama's more recent written volume. Of course, that is another manufactured controversy today, so I doubt you hear Obama say much about it publicly again.

Central to the book's plot is the struggle Barack Obama endures between his white and African-American roots. His mother, a white American from Kansas, his father, an African-American from Kenya. Incidentally, I've never understood why people who are black are labeled African-American, when they are from Africa. But I digress. I don't want to say that if a person is white, they cannot understand the black experience, because I'm sure that's a gross misgeneralization. However, I know I myself can not begin to insinuate that I understand where someone like Obama is coming from. I certainly get a better feel for his experiences, but my upbringing is completely opposed to someone like him.

And at the same time, I noticed that I am not that different. As Obama spoke about finding his true identity, I connected and reflected on how I have had similar difficulties in my own life, in my own experiences, particularly in my Mormon culture, from time to time. Obama also has a tendency to challenge the accepted norms in society, as I will sometimes attempt to do. Quotes such as the following really resonated with me:

"Each image carried its own lesson, each was subject to differing interpretations. For there were many churches, many faiths. There were times, perhaps, when those faiths seemed to converge - the crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the Freedom Riders at the lunch counter. But such moments were partial, fragmentary. With our eyes closed, we uttered the same words, but in our hearts we each prayed to our own masters; we each remained locked in our own memories; we all clung to our own foolish magic.....

"Both Marty and Smalls knew that in politics, like religion, power lay in certainty - and that one man's certainty always threatened another's.

"I realized then, standing in an empty McDonald's parking lot in the South Side of Chicago, that I was a heretic. Or worse - for even a heretic must believe in something, if nothing more than the truth of his own doubt."

His experiences going up throughout his life taught me that no matter how good you think you are, no matter how much you think you are helping your fellow man, or how much you think you may be making a difference, there will be people, even those close to you, who will try to discourage you and tell you it is no use, it is not worth it. Obama is an example of persevering in the face of those challenges.

I personally was impressed by the telling of Obama's conversion to Jesus. As stated earlier, this brings up the cumbersome specter or Reverend Wright, of whom I have heard people say has no intention of preaching about Jesus. Kind of a strange thing to say when you've only listened to five seconds of the total of all his sermons. But that is another debate to be had, as well. Obama tells it thus:

"The title of Revernd Wright's sermon that morning was 'The Audacity of Hope.' He began with a passage from the Book of Samuel - the story of Hannah, who, batten and taunted by her rivals, had wept and shaken in prayer before her God. The story reminded him, he said, of a sermon a fellow pastor had preached at a conference some years before, in which the pastor described going to a museum and being confronted by a painting titled Hope.

"'The painting depicts a harpist,' Reverend Wright explained, 'a woman who at first glance appears to be sitting atop a great mountain. Until you take a closer look and see that the woman is bruised and bloodied, dressed in tattered rags, the harp reduced to a single frayed string. Your eye is then drawn down to the scene below, down to the valley below, where everywhere are the ravages of famine, the drumbeat of war, a world groaning under strife and deprivation.'

"'It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year, where white folks' greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere....That's the world! On which hope sits!'".....

"'And yet consider once again the painting before us. Hope! Like Hannah, that harpist is looking upwards, a few faint notes floating upwards towards the heavens. She dares to hope....She has the audacity...to make music...and praise God...on the one string...she has left!'

..."And in that single note - hope - I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion's den, Ezekiel's field of dry bones. Those stories - of survival, and freedom, and hope - became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn't need to feel shamed about, memories more accessible than those of ancient Egypt, memories that all people might study and cherish - and with which we could start to rebuild. And if a part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfill its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried withing it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams."

It was certainly in reading like passages that I connected with the author at times. All of us have challenges in our lives. All of them are as real and as daunting for us, as anything we've faced. We also have many positive, uplifting, joyful experiences. All of them shape us into who we are, and direct us on a path of who we hope to become. I think we can learn things, gain insights from Obama's observations. Does having read the book minimize my disagreements with him on political matters? Not at all, really. However, I understand the man, and where he is coming from. And I respect his positions more, and wonder if maybe I need to alter my positions a little more.

To conclude, I don't know if I've really even said anything profound, if I've only said enough to make it sink in - reading this story was much more edifying than listening to Sean Hannity demonize "Barack the radical" all day long. Maybe if we got to know people more before we condemned them and belittled them, we might find we have much more in common than we ever dreamed.

I have not even touched on Obama's struggle with not really ever knowing his father, and trying to discover what his father mean to him as a human being. But he did learn something of his father in his journeys in Kenya. This is how he portrays it after learning some of his grandfather's and father's history from his relatives in that country:

"I dropped to the ground and swept my hand across the smooth yellow tile. Oh, Father, I cried. There was no shame in your confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father's before you. No shame in the fear, or in the fear of his father before him. There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us. If it weren't for that silence, your grandfather might have told your father that he could never escape himself, or re-create himself alone. Your father might have taught those same lessons to you....

"The silence killed your faith. And for lack of faith you clung to both too much and too little of your past. Too much of its rigidness, its suspicions, its male cruelties. Too little of the laughter in Granny's voice, the pleasures of company while herding the goats, the murmur of the market, the stories around the fire. The loyalty that could make up for a lack of airplanes or rifles. Words of encouragement. An embrace. A strong, true love....

"For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America - the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago - all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or a color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father's pain. My questions were my brothers' questions. Their struggle, my birthright."

I am afraid I have gone on far too long. Suffice it to say, even if we think it is sometimes misplaced, we should be looking for leaders who voice these ideals - hope for a better world - hope for a better future. We hope they share our morals, our values, but even when these differ, we can still hold on to the fact that we are still hoping and dreaming for the same outcomes - that our country remains great, and that our leaders lead us aright.

Are they just words? Maybe. Do I share all of Obama's beliefs and values? Definitely not. However, I certainly wonder if I don't share more of his values than I do with the man or woman who makes a living defaming, lying, slandering, attacking. I do not share those values, but it is those values that lead me to learn more than I otherwise would. So in that respect, I guess the haters can continue to deride. I'll continue to look for the positive. Maybe someday I'll be able to stand up to the Lord's admonition:

Matthew 12:36
36 But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.

Good luck, mainstream media, and right-wing attack radio!

Sorry, I seem to have gone off on a tangent again. If I have piqued your interest at all, I recommend the book. Read it instead of this blog post, trust me.

No comments: